Research Connects the Dots Between Food Choices, Income, and the Environment



By Scott Lewis

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Research Connects the Dots Between Food Choices, Income, and the Environment

Could policies that make healthier food accessible to lower-income Americans also help reduce the environmental impacts of food production, such as the use of land and water resources and greenhouse gas emissions?

A research paper co-authored by Associate Professor of Environmental Management and Sustainability Weslynne Ashton at Illinois Institute of Technology and published in Environmental Engineering Science provides new data and insights into the connections between food-consumption patterns and the environment.

Ashton teamed up on the project with doctoral student Joe F. Bozeman III and director Thomas L. Theis of the Institute for Environmental Science and Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Their paper titled “Distinguishing Environmental Impacts of Household Food-Spending Patterns Among U.S. Demographic Groups” is part of lead author Bozeman’s dissertation research. 

“We know that different types of foods have distinct energy, water, and land use requirements, and that different demographic groups have distinct food consumption patterns,” according to Ashton. “We were interested in understanding how those two dynamics interact; that is, how the food choices of different demographic groups have different environmental impacts, and how policies could guide different groups toward mitigating the climate implications of their food choices.”

The study examines spending on and consumption of five food groups—vegetables, fruits, protein, dairy, and grains—by white, black, and Latinx households in the United States. Ashton, Bozeman, and Theis developed an innovative methodology to quantify the relationship between the amount of money spent on food by each demographic group and the environmental impacts that producing the food has on land, water, and the emission of greenhouse gases that contributes to climate change. They also integrated socioeconomic data to include household income as a factor in food-buying choices.

The group’s findings show that, on average, the environmental impact of each dollar spent on food by black and Latinx households is greater than each dollar spent by white households. This occurs as black and Latinx households have lower average incomes and purchase a higher proportion of energy-dense and environmentally impactful food items, especially meat proteins such as beef, as part of their diet.

“The purchasing decisions are very much driven by the available income of the household,” says Ashton. “The limited purchasing income steers people toward purchasing food items to satisfy hunger and provide as much energy as possible.” Households with higher incomes, in contrast, have additional money to spend on items such as fruits and vegetables.

“What this research shows is that we can’t just say that in order to save the planet and reduce our carbon emissions we need to eat less beef,” Ashton notes. “We have to be more nuanced and understand who’s eating more beef and why.”

According to Ashton, the most important takeaway from the study for policymakers and researchers is to tie the nutritional value that individuals in a household need to the types and amount of food they can purchase with their available income, and to use those insights to develop targeted policies that encourage consumption of foods with fewer environmental impacts.

“Either increasing the purchasing power [of lower-income families] or making good food cheaper are ways that we can address the environmental challenge of food production [as well as] the nutritional needs of the poorer households in the country,” she says.